As anyone thinking about enrolling in a college or university knows, tuition is not cheap. The National Association of Student Financial Aid Administrators (NASFAA) notes that since the early 1980s, tuition has risen by approximately 7 percent a year, causing two-thirds of students to borrow to complete their degrees. Although grants and outright scholarships exist, part of the problem, NASFAA's website explains, is that "in 1975 the states picked up 60 percent of the tab while families shouldered 33 percent" and the federal government picked up the balance. Thirty-eight years later, the states pay approximately 34 percent and the feds pay 16 percent, leaving students and their families to shell out - often through loans - the remaining half.
And it's getting worse. According to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, since the start of the recession in 2008, "cuts to higher education have been severe and almost universal." As a result, every state except North Dakota and Wyoming spends less on student aid than it did five years ago.
Worse, as staggering as these numbers are, when gender enters the mix, the impact is heightened. There are two reasons for this: First, there are more women than men on campus - 56.4 percent vs. 43.6 percent nationwide. Secondly, females earn less than men in virtually every occupation, from business to medicine to the arts, but pay the same amount to go to school, making any outstanding loans a larger repayment burden.
This finding was underscored by a study conducted by the American Association of University Women and released in October 2012 that found that women earn 82 percent of what men earn; one year after finishing college, women's salaries averaged $35,296, compared with $42,918 for men. This is far from chump change: Over a lifetime, the AAUW estimates that the disparity amounts to half a million dollars less for female workers, a reality that makes a direct, heavy impact on the possibility of repaying loans.
The study further documents the impact of loan repayment on women's everyday lives: 47 percent of women told the AAUW that they pay more than 8 percent of their net earnings toward their loans, while only 39 percent of men pay this percentage. What's more, 20 percent of women expend more than 15 percent of their take-home salaries on educational debt.
The long-term repercussions of this are stark: The pay gap, compounded by large monthly loan payments, means that most women save far less than men. This directly correlates to higher poverty rates for women as they age. To wit, by the time women hit their mid- to late 60s, 11 percent are living in poverty, compared with 6 percent of men. The loan imbalance also decreases women's likelihood of retirement.
Another study, this one called The Strategic National Arts Alumni Project Survey, looks at whether arts graduates are able to pursue their chosen fields after college. In its most recent iteration, researchers scrutinized the 2011 and 2012 earnings of 65,837 alumni from 120 US and Canadian colleges and universities. They defined arts broadly to include architecture, choreography, creative writing, filmmaking, fine arts, graphic design, illustration, interior design, photography, theater and videography. They found that while 56 percent of males were earning an annual salary of $50,000 or more, only 36 percent of comparably educated females had reached this earnings threshold. The upshot, SNAAP concluded, was that "loan debt determines if graduates can even work as artists."
It's a situation that Jennifer Stohlmann, a 2011 graduate of Pratt Institute in Brooklyn, New York, knows well. Thanks to large merit grants and three years as a resident adviser and part-time office worker, Stohlmann's $180,000 education involved minimal borrowing - $26,000 for a bachelor's degree in creative writing. Nonetheless, she did not pursue a career as a writer after she graduated - and won't do so until her debts are paid off in 2021. "I realized that I needed a steady salary in order to pay my loans without damaging my credit," she said. "The cost of living in New York City is high, but I live a good lifestyle and am financially independent." Still, Stohlmann, 24 and single, acknowledges that she has had to make concessions. "I live with a roommate instead of having my own apartment. I rely solely on public transportation. Car ownership is a pipe dream."
Mathematics major Stephanie Lee (a pseudonym), age 26, borrowed $63,000 to attend the University of Michigan as an out-of-state resident and has not been as fortunate as Stohlmann. She presently works three jobs and lives at home so that she can make a dent on her debt. "After graduating in 2010, I considered a lot of options," she told Truthout. "While in school, I heavily considered working for the government or working in math research, but I decided I would like to use my math skills in a business setting such as project management or consumer insights." It hasn't happened. "Having little practical experience in these fields makes it difficult to even get interviews for entry-level positions," she said. Instead, Lee works at a long-term temp job that pays $18 an hour. She also has a weekend job in retail, where she earns $10 an hour, and runs a once-monthly workshop for teens at the local library for $150 a shot. "My car gave out last December, and I haven't been able to save up to buy another," she said. "I also haven't been able to move from my mother's suburban Illinois home, travel, go on vacation, or indulge in personal wants." On the upside, however, Lee will have paid off one loan by the end of 2013, another by the end of 2016 and a third by the end of 2018.
Paying off debt - however distant the date - is something that Stohlmann and Lee can envision. This is not the case for 27-year-old Midwesterner Lisa Romero [a pseudonym]. Romero attended an Ivy League college for undergraduate and graduate study then went to the United Kingdom for medical school. The total owed: $350,000. "Over the next 20 or more years, I'll be paying nearly $750,000 thanks to interest on both my subsidized and unsubsidized loans," she said. "Right now I'm doing a research fellowship. But when I'm ready to choose a residency, I'm going to have to go to wherever the cost of living is lowest. This means I'll likely be far from my family and won't be able to visit for a weekend since every train fare or flight is money I could be using to repay my loans. I want to go into obstetrics/gynecology. Many of the American medical students I know are going into dermatology, plastic surgery or radiology, rather than primary care, because these fields pay more and it will be easier for them to pay back their loans. This is not what we should be encouraging."
Chanel Dubofsky, a 34-year-old graduate student at the Vermont College of Fine Arts, agrees that minimizing living costs is essential. Like Stephanie Lee, Dubofsky has several jobs. But because her rent is just $450 a month, she has so far managed to keep the creditors at bay. Nevertheless, by the time she finishes her master's degree in 2015, she will owe $56,000, $20,000 of it from her years as an undergraduate at the University of Massachusetts. "It wasn't an option for me not to borrow as an undergraduate, because without loans, I wouldn't have been able to attend college," she said. "My mom and grandmother, who raised me, organized my loan stuff and signed off on it, but we never talked about what it would mean to have to pay it off."
Dubofsky's financial education took a dramatic turn when she was 19 and her mother died. Seemingly overnight, she had to manage her own money, find part-time work and finish school - the only way she knew to achieve some modicum of social and intellectual mobility.
Likewise, Stacey Browne (a pseudonym). Now in her late 30s, Browne is married, has a 12-year-old son, and lives in Buffalo, New York. "I went to the Eugene Lang College in New York City in the 1990s," she says. "Tuition was $16,000, plus costs for room and board. I went there because I grew up in a small New England town - only 6,000 residents - that was economically depressed with mostly factory jobs that were steadily being off-shored to China. It was important to me to get out of that town and get to New York. I liked Lang because it was a small college smack-dab in the middle of a huge city. It offered a feeling of community, but the city itself served as the campus." Browne later earned a master's in library science and now works as a business consultant.
Her educational debt? Approximately $53,000 for her bachelor's and master's. Unfortunately, that's just the tip of a large loan iceberg: She and her spouse owe an additional $100,000 for his bachelor's, MBA and pharmacology degrees. "We moved to Buffalo because we were state residents and the State University of New York was damned cheap compared to the other possibilities," Browne said. "We were able to buy a house and pay a mortgage of $410 a month. We also pay $1,000 a month in student loans, but the cost of living in Buffalo makes it possible for us to be OK."
Was it worth it? "I have regrets," she said.
Others voice similar sentiments. "I've spoken to a lot of people who've gone to law school or medical school, and most say they would not do it again," Dr. Lisa Romero said. "Even if they now have good jobs, they think it was a mistake to get so deeply in debt."